To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Friday, July 10, 2015

Israel's Never-Ended 'Six Day War' Part 2: What Historian Tony Judt Saw At The Front

IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren blows triumphalist notes at Jerusalem's Western Wall, June 1967

Like I.F. Stone, British historian Tony Judt was an ardent supporter of Israel, its insularity notwithstanding, until the Six Day War pried the scales from his eyes. Like Stone, Judt saw that victory in the Six Day War played to some of Zionism’s worst tendencies, leading to a disillusionment about Israel that would later find voice in controversial essays that supporters of the Jewish state found traitorous. Like "Holy War," Stone’s 1967 NYRB essay I posted about in April last year after the most recent round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks foundered, the essays Judt produced---for the New York Review of Books, for the New York Times and for Haaretz ---represented a powerful challenge to Zionist narratives, particularly the “moral case for Israel” that the American pro Israel community clings to so tenaciously. 

In hindsight, the antagonism with which Judt’s enemies responded stands in direction proportion to the accuracy of his charges, with Judt's apprehensions about Israel’s future now “more cogent than ever,” as Jacob Heilbrunn just noted this week in a TBR review. In fact, though Judt was eulogized for the incisiveness of his historical interpretations, he was also a bit of a seer, presciently recognizing dark spots on the Zionist psyche that would throw long shadows across the coming decades.

Judt grew up in London’s East End, joining the Labor Zionist movement as a teenager at the encouragement of his parents who were themselves secular and apolitical.  He was, he explained in an autobiographical essay for the NYRB, “the ideal recruit: articulate, committed and uncompromisingly ideologically conformist.”  He spent three summers working on Israeli kibbutzim, and most of 1966 at Machanayim, a collective farm in the Upper Galilee, where he “idealized Jewish distinction, and intuitively grasped and reproduced the Zionist emphasis upon separation and ethnic difference.” The kibbutz was suffused with a shared sense of moral purpose: “bringing Jews back to the land and separating them from their rootless diasporic degeneracy.

For the neophyte fifteen-year-old Londoner encountering the kibbutz for the first time, the effect was exhilarating. Here was “Muscular Judaism” in its most seductive guise: health, exercise, productivity, collective purpose, self-sufficiency, and proud separatism....

In time though he came to chaff at “how limited the kibbutz and its members really were” realizing “how little my fellow kibbutzniks knew or cared about the wider world—except insofar as it directly affected them or their country.

The mere fact of collective self-government, or egalitarian distribution of consumer durables, does not make you either more sophisticated or more tolerant of others. Indeed, to the extent that it contributes to an extraordinary smugness of self-regard, it actually reinforces the worst kind of ethnic solipsism…The care that left-wing kibbutz movements took to avoid employing Arab labor served less to burnish their egalitarian credentials than to isolate them from the inconvenient facts of Middle Eastern life…. I do recall even then wondering why I never met a single Arab in the course of my lengthy kibbutz stays, despite living in close proximity to the most densely populated Arab communities of the country.

Judt says he lived withcognitive dissonance,” on the one hand believing in “the principled virtues” of kibbutz life, but actively disliking it at the same time.
Release from his “confusions” came by two different developments. One was an acceptance into Cambridge, which appalled his fellow kibbutzim for whom “The whole culture of “Aliya”—“going up” (to Israel)—presumed the severing of links and opportunities back in the diaspora.” The experience as a translator for the IDF on the Golan Heights after the Six-Day War was another.

There, to my surprise, I discovered that most Israelis were not transplanted latter-day agrarian socialists but young, prejudiced urban Jews who differed from their European or American counterparts chiefly in their macho, swaggering self-confidence, and access to armed weapons. Their attitude toward the recently defeated Arabs shocked me (testament to the delusions of my kibbutz years) and the insouciance with which they anticipated their future occupation and domination of Arab lands terrified me even then.

Judt said he could identify the very moment and the circumstances of his epiphany. “I was sitting around listening to young Israeli officers talking, and there was an inevitable macho: ‘Now we’re in charge, we’re the Jews with guns, and we’ve got all this land—and boy, we’re never going to give it back, and if they don’t like it, they can just leave.’ I was a 19-year-old left-winger, and I’d never heard this kind of language on a sustained basis.”  Within a few weeks he had packed his bags and headed home. At Cambridge, he was immune to the “enthusiasms and seductions of the New Left,” and its radical spin-offs: Maoism, gauchisme, femino-Marxism. Labor Zionism had turned him into a “universalist social democrat,” with an enduring suspicion of “identity politics in all forms, Jewish above all.”

Unlike Stone, who announced his apostasy fairly quickly after losing Zionist faith, Judt kept his anti Zionist powder dry for a long time. He only started to write about Israel in the year 2002, when he began to realize “that there was a sort of suffocating silence not only about what was happening in the occupied territories and in Israel and Israeli political culture, but also that the suffocating silence was largely focused on the illegitimacy of anyone speaking lest they be accused of anti-Semitism.” And when he did start writing about Israel, he did not include his Zionist youth credentials on his bio, implicitly rejecting the idea that his ethnicity, and his ethnic experience earned him any special ethic privilege.

Judt’s most controversial essay, "Israel: The Alternative" was published in the NYRB in 2003, in which he argued for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which Arabs and Jews would enjoy equal status in a secular state. To most Zionists, even liberal ones, this was anathema. In 2006, when Judt defended John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt, authors of the Israel Lobby, the anti Defamation Leagure and the American Jewish Committee put pressure on the Polish embassy in New York to cancel a speaking appearance, prompting a minor public furor. Ridiculing Judt’s chagrin and the chain of angry emails it produced, New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier said that “what Judt was prevented from delivering at the Polish consulate was a conspiracy theory about the pernicious role of the Jews in the world,” on par with the thinking of Mel Gibson. Wieseltier maintained that Judt may not be an anti Semite per se, but his writing about Israel and about Jews was “icily lacking in decency.”

“The Country That Wouldn’t Grow Up,” a May 2006 feature essay in Haaretz, was not as controversial, at least on this side of the world. It is, however, probably Judt’s most devastating--and prescient, as the outlines of Israel’s status as an internationally isolated apartheid state grow more apparent by the day and the “moral case for Israel” collapses in a heap of contradictions and contrary facts.
Judt opened with a description of the atmosphere at Cambridge in the run up to the Six Day war in the spring of 1967 where the balance of student opinion at Cambridge University was overwhelmingly pro-Israel “and in politics and policymaking circles only old-fashioned conservative Arabists expressed any criticism of the Jewish state.” Today, Judt lamented, “everything is different.” The victory of Israel in June 1967 and its continuing occupation of the territories it conquered represented “a moral and political catastrophe” for the Jewish state. 

Israel's actions in the West Bank and Gaza have magnified and publicized the country's shortcomings and displayed them to a watching world. Curfews, checkpoints, bulldozers, public humiliations, home destructions, land seizures, shootings, "targeted assassinations," the separation fence: All of these routines of occupation and repression were once familiar only to an informed minority of specialists and activists. Today they can be watched, in real time, by anyone with a computer or a satellite dish - which means that Israel's behavior is under daily scrutiny by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. The result has been a complete transformation in the international view of Israel. Until very recently the carefully burnished image of an ultra-modern society - built by survivors and pioneers and peopled by peace-loving democrats - still held sway over international opinion. But today? What is the universal shorthand symbol for Israel, reproduced worldwide in thousands of newspaper editorials and political cartoons? The Star of David emblazoned upon a tank.

Today only a tiny minority of outsiders see Israelis as victims. The true victims, it is now widely accepted, are the Palestinians. Indeed, Palestinians have now displaced Jews as the emblematic persecuted minority: vulnerable, humiliated and stateless. This unsought distinction does little to advance the Palestinian case any more than it ever helped Jews, but it has redefined Israel forever. It has become commonplace to compare Israel at best to an occupying colonizer, at worst to the South Africa of race laws and Bantustans. 

Such comparisons are lethal to Israel's moral credibility. They strike at what was once its strongest suit: the claim of being a vulnerable island of democracy and decency in a sea of authoritarianism and cruelty; an oasis of rights and freedoms surrounded by a desert of repression. But democrats don't fence into Bantustans helpless people whose land they have conquered, and free men don't ignore international law and steal other men's homes. The contradictions of Israeli self-presentation - "we are very strong/we are very vulnerable"; "we are in control of our fate/we are the victims"; "we are a normal state/we demand special treatment" - are not new: they have been part of the country's peculiar identity almost from the outset. And Israel's insistent emphasis upon its isolation and uniqueness, its claim to be both victim and hero, were once part of its David versus Goliath appeal.

Today the country's national narrative of macho victimhood appears to the rest of the world as simply bizarre: evidence of a sort of collective cognitive dysfunction that has gripped Israel's political culture. And the long cultivated persecution mania - "everyone's out to get us" - no longer elicits sympathy. Instead it attracts some very unappetizing comparisons: At a recent international meeting I heard one speaker, by analogy with Helmut Schmidt's famous dismissal of the Soviet Union as "Upper Volta with Missiles," describe Israel as "Serbia with nukes."

One problem Israel faced was that the Holocaust was losing its propaganda value. It could, in his words, no longer be instrumentalized” to excuse Israel’s behavior.

Thanks to the passage of time, most Western European states have now come to terms with their part in the Holocaust, something that was not true a quarter century ago. From Israel's point of view, this has had paradoxical consequences: Until the end of the Cold War Israeli governments could still play upon the guilt of Germans and other Europeans, exploiting their failure to acknowledge fully what was done to Jews on their territory. Today, now that the history of World War II is retreating from the public square into the classroom and from the classroom into the history books, a growing majority of voters in Europe and elsewhere (young voters above all) simply cannot understand how the horrors of the last European war can be invoked to license or condone unacceptable behavior in another time and place. In the eyes of a watching world, the fact that the great-grandmother of an Israeli soldier died in Treblinka is no excuse for his own abusive treatment of a Palestinian woman waiting to cross a checkpoint. "Remember Auschwitz" is not an acceptable response.

Judt also noted that while “Israel and its supporters today fall back with increasing shrillness upon the oldest claim of all: Israel is a Jewish state and that is why people criticize it,” the charge of anti Semitism was losing its value. “If it has been played more insistently and aggressively in recent years, that is because it is now the only card left. “

Claiming that the anti-Semitism card was a spent force in justifying Israel’s actions was one thing. But Judt was treading on real heresy when he argued that “Jews outside of Israel” pay a high price for the tactic of ‘tarring any foreign criticism with the brush of anti-Semitism. “ It makes diaspora Jews inhibit their own criticisms of Israel for fear of appearing to associate with bad company,” he maintained, and also “encourages others to look upon Jews everywhere as de facto collaborators in Israel's misbehavior.”

When Israel breaks international law in the occupied territories, when Israel publicly humiliates the subject populations whose land it has seized - but then responds to its critics with loud cries of "anti-Semitism" - it is in effect saying that these acts are not Israeli acts, they are Jewish acts: The occupation is not an Israeli occupation, it is a Jewish occupation, and if you don't like these things it is because you don't like Jews.

Anticipating the wave of anti Jewish violence that swept across Europe this year in the wake of last summer’s Israeli military operations in Gaza, and the punishment that would await those like the Yale chaplain dismissed for asserting such a link in a letter to the New York Times, Judt made the connection between Israel’s behavior and the rise of worldwide anti Semitism. Such a link was anathema to Zionists who believe that anti Semitism is an almost mystical force immune from simple cause and effect and regard such a causal connection as “blaming the victim.” Judt said that “Israel's reckless behavior and insistent identification of all criticism with anti-Semitism is now the leading source of anti-Jewish sentiment in Western Europe and much of Asia.” 

For tens of millions of people in the world today, Israel is indeed the state of all the Jews. And thus, reasonably enough, many observers believe that one way to take the sting out of rising anti-Semitism in the suburbs of Paris or the streets of Jakarta would be for Israel to give the Palestinians back their land.

Strong powers of denial were factors in the incapacity of Israel’s leaders to understand and respond to the meltdown of its international image, but Judt concluded

If Israel's leaders have been able to ignore such developments it is in large measure because they have hitherto counted upon the unquestioning support of the United States - the one country in the world where the claim that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism is still echoed not only in the opinions of many Jews but also in the public pronouncements of mainstream politicians and the mass media. But this lazy, ingrained confidence in unconditional American approval - and the moral, military and financial support that accompanies it - may prove to be Israel's undoing.

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